Conspiracy theories proliferate in the blogosphere, via YouTube videos, and on social media. As the Internet penetrates further into our lives, it can seem like these beliefs become more common. This may be a side effect of communal reinforcement engendered by modern communication — irrespective of what evidence could confirm or deny these ideas, they seem to become more weighty and relevant the more our friends share them, the higher their view counts become on YouTube, or the more they show up in Google searches.
It concerns me when these theories appear among my activist friends, because I think it makes the entire movement look bad when we stray from fact into fantasy. Rather than address any specific conspiracy theory, I want to focus on a tool which I believe can help us focus on reality and its many tangible ills. That tool is Occam’s Razor, also known as the Principle of Simplicity (or the Principle of Parsimony if you want a nice five-dollar word).
Occam’s Razor: Simpler is Better
Occam’s Razor is named for William of Ockham, even though he neither invented the concept nor called it a razor. At its heart, the razor is the idea that simpler ideas are more likely to be true.
From the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on Occam’s Razor:
Today, we think of the principle of parsimony as a heuristic device. We don’t assume that the simpler theory is correct and the more complex one false. We know from experience that more often than not the theory that requires more complicated machinations is wrong. Until proved otherwise, the more complex theory competing with a simpler explanation should be put on the back burner, but not thrown onto the trash heap of history until proven false.
It’s a complex world built on complex causes and effects. Science offers many examples where a simpler explanation is wrong. Yet it’s best to focus on simpler possibilities first, especially those with fewer variables. For example, an explanation of a given event which requires a few people hiding illegal or unethical acts is simpler than one which requires more. Simpler theories are not just more likely, but also easier to prove. Like Sherlock Holmes suggests, the improbable is sometimes true but first we must conclusively eliminate the rest.
The Superhero Metaphor: Remember Human Frailty
Above, I mentioned that simpler theories involve fewer people. Humans are capable of great works of collaboration but they are terrible at keeping big secrets. Applying Occam’s Razor, it’s simpler to assume that human frailty — greed, fear, hatred, the most base self-interest — are at the root of many problems before looking to more complicated scenarios. If one scenario involves a few powerful people openly acting to increase their already swollen bottom line, or a single person lashing out at the world out of pain or fear, it’s probably more likely than the scenario that involves dozens or even hundreds of disparate people maintaining a false story in lockstep, without anyone breaking a veil of secrecy. It’s one thing to suggest that a handful of government officials might work to cover up or spin an event, but far more complex to imagine scientists, first responders, multiple media sources of all political leanings, and everyday people colluding to do the same.
The simpler view is arguably a more cynical one, sadly. There’s something comforting in some conspiracy theories — what I might call the Superhero Metaphor. Imagining that global warming is just a supervillain in colorful tights which Captain Planet could punch in the nose till he surrendered is easier than tackling the full complex scope of the problem. Likewise, it is comforting to think a handful of evil people might have caused a terrible event or trend, because arresting them would be far easier than coping with the real problems of modern global human society and the realities of human mortality and weakness. Despite the seeming simplicity of these imagined supervillains, the reality of anyone achieving such power would be quite complex.
Out of the The Matrix: Focus on the Evil We Know
Occam’s Razor is only a tool. It cannot provide answers itself; it can only help a thinker choose between possibilities. It can lead to false conclusions…. False conclusions can also come from the expectations of the observer. –Dr. William F. Williams (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience
It’s possible — even probable — that many terrible things are going on behind the scenes in world politics. One reason that conspiracy theories gain traction is that there are ample reasons to distrust our government based on proven facts. We know that they negotiate away the best interests of the people through treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and we know that government agents have colluded to monitor activist movements over the decades from the American Indian Movement to Occupy Wall St. But stories are built by hard work — whistleblowers, FOIA requests, investigative journalism, even hacktivism — not appeals to emotion, ‘what if’ games and assembling strings of coincidence.
Since I’m using pop culture already, I am going to call this the Matrix Metaphor — it’s possible we could all be brains in vats, but apart from providing entertaining conversation over bong rips this concept does us little good in the here and now. We know that corporate capitalism encourages bankers to collude in wrecking our economy and pipeline companies to despoil our environment without needing to imagine the Illuminati or extra-dimensional lizard beings pulling their strings.
Our focus as activists should be on reacting to what we know to be true, rather than what might. To use a less fantastical example, we know that recently released FBI files reveal that someone planned sniper attacks on Occupy leaders and that the FBI does not seem to have warned anyone in danger. This gives activists plenty to work with without anyone needing to jump to conclusions about government-led assassination plots.
Teaching Common Sense?
From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on William of Ockham:
At one level, this is just common sense. Suppose your car suddenly stops running and your fuel gauge indicates an empty gas tank. It would be silly to hypothesize both that you are out of gas and that you are out of oil.
In writing this, I realize that a lot of this is common sense, and common sense is frequently a poor match for passionate human belief. Having opened our minds to the possibility that there’s more to the world than the picture provided by the mainstream media, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole. Though I doubt my words will make any true believer think twice about a favorite conspiracy, I hope they’ll encourage a few readers to evaluate the stories that come our way whether the source is the TV news or our Facebook friends.
Photo by Ryan Scott released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives License.